Southern Sweet Tea

Ahh, sweet tea. Nectar to a Southerner and as essential to our cuisine as fat back and turnip greens. As Dolly Parton famously said in Steel Magnolias – “Sweet Tea! House wine of the South!” And it is.

I can’t remember a single day of my life when there was not a pitcher of sweet tea in my refrigerator. Its constant presence is just a part of life. It’s the beverage of choice for lunch and supper and has been enjoyed at breakfast on hot, sultry summer days. Some of us are even guilty of putting it in babies’ bottles. Not that I would ever do something like that.

It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I learned that not everyone in the world drinks sweet tea every day. And let me tell you, it was a rude awakening, too. It was on a trip to Nebraska when we stopped in St. Louis for a meal. I, being the naive little southern girl that I was, ordered sweet tea with my meal. After all, it was what we had at home and ordered any time we went out to eat. Well, the waiter looked right down his nose and told me he was “very sorry but iced tea is out of season.” Huh? Out of season? Who ever heard of such a thing! Not to be outdone, though, I asked him if hot tea was available. “Why certainly,” he said! Well then, I said, “May I please have a cup of hot tea and a glass of ice?” Got my sweet tea.

Don’t believe me yet about the importance of sweet tea to Southerners? When my husband’s company was planning the closing of its manufacturing facility in south Georgia a few years ago, they held a meeting for all the employees so that they could discuss the closure and possibilities for jobs with the company in its northeastern U.S. locations. After some explanation, they asked if there were questions. They expected questions about benefits, moving expenses, transition assistance. You know the usual things on the minds of people being uprooted from their homes and sent halfway across the country. What was the first question asked? Wait for it — “Do they serve sweet tea in the company cafeteria?” I am not joking.

Just in case you still don’t believe me, back in 2003 a bill was introduced in the Georgia state legislature that would make it a misdemeanor for a restaurant that offered tea on its menu to not offer sweet tea as well. They said the next day that it was really an April Fool’s joke, but I don’t believe it.

Here’s how to make yourself a pitcher of southern nectar.

2 quarts cold water, divided
2 family size tea bags
1 cup sugar

Making southern sweet tea

Place one quart of water in a pan and bring to a boil. Add the tea bags, cover, remove from the heat and let it steep for 10-15 minutes.

Southern sweet tea

Now, I know that all the tea companies’ instructions say to steep for 3 to 5 minutes. But I’m telling you that most southern cooks will steep at least 15 minutes. Sometimes more. We just want to get all the goodness we can out of those tea leaves! When the steeping time is over I also stir the bags around in the water for a while and then give them a good squeeze before I remove them.

Adding sugar for sweet tea

Remove the tea bags, add the sugar and stir until completely dissolved. Now, here’s another thing you need to know. Make sure to add your sugar while your steeped tea is still good and warm. If you try to add sugar to cold water you’ll never get it to go into solution. Same thing when they bring you some iced tea and two sugar packets in a restaurant. Like two packs of sugar is enough to start with, but you’ll never get that tea sweet enough after the ice has been added. The sugar just won’t dissolve!

Making southern sweet tea

Add the additional quart of cold water and stir. Makes two quarts of the prettiest, sweetest tea you ever tasted. Serve the tea over ice. Lemon and/or mint are optional.


Southern Sweet Tea
Cook time
Total time
Sweet tea - nectar to Southerners everywhere.
Serves: 2 quarts
  • 2 quarts cold water, divided
  • 2 family size tea bags
  • 1 cup sugar
  1. Place one quart of water in a pan and bring to a boil. Add the tea bags, cover and let steep for 10-15 minutes.
  2. Remove the tea bags, add the sugar and stir until completely dissolved. Add the additional quart of cold water and stir.
  3. Serve over ice. Lemon and/or mint optional.
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    • says

      I know what you mean, Vickie. Everyone has a little bit different recipe and they all taste slightly different. Homemade is always the best anyway!

  1. says

    The first time that I ever had sweet tea was when I lived in Chattanooga for 6 months when I was 20 years old. I was blown away for how friendly and gracious everyone was. For the longest time, I thought that having sweet tea meant pouring sugar in your tea. IT wasn’t the same. Tien :)

    • says

      No, Tien. You just can’t get that tea sweet once it is cold. You have to dissolve the sugar in the warm tea and then put it over ice.

    • says

      Now you can make some any time you want! I do recommend Luzianne tea bags. They’re just the best and are meant specifically for iced tea.

  2. says

    My Yanni is from New Orleans and he *adores* his sweet tea! Thanks bunches for showing me how to actually make the delicious sweet, sweet Southern tea!

  3. says

    I make my iced tea the same way but it’s not sweet enough to be called Sweet Tea. It’s funny how things like this happen – I poured myself a tall glass of iced tea today and I thought ‘this looks so southern, I wonder if it is’, and then tonight I saw your Southern Sweet Tea post!

    Love your posts and how you bring old fashion foods and past traditions together.

    • says

      Your comment about bringing old-fashioned foods and traditions together really made my day! That’s exactly what I try to do on my blog.

  4. Tracey says

    I lived in Japan for three years, and I several friends who could come over to my house just for my sweet tea. When we had potlucks, everyone would ask for it, so I would take over THREE GALLONS!! Trust me, those jugs emptied out fast!

    If you find you are sweet tea challenged, or prefer to use a loose leaf tea, has a neat device called an ingenuiTEA. They also have some wonderful naturally-flavored tea. I love their iced mojito tea and my mom loves their ginger peach tea.

    One last thing, I was always taught to use stainless steel pans. My granny said that aluminum makes the tea taste “off” so don’t use it. Has anyone else ever heard that? Just curious.

    • says

      I’ve never heard about not using aluminum pans, but I don’t use them anyway because of the relationship of aluminum with Alzheimer’s.

      • Tracey says

        If you don’t use aluminum pans (I don’t either for the same reason), you might want to check your antiperspirant. Generally, the first ingredient is an alum compound. If you can find one that is strictly a deodorant, many times there is no aluminum in it. However, it’s really hard to find plain deodorant nowadays unless you go to a health food store. And then you have to get used to sweating again. I live in SW Florida, so that really was a concern for me. I got over it!!

  5. Carole says

    Although I have no Southern roots, this is the way that my Mother made what we called “iced tea” in Philadelphia. One thing, she always added some lemon while the tea was steeping. We drank it year round and I continue the tradition to this day. I prefer it to soda, which I haven’t drunk in years.

    • says

      Hi Carole,

      We call it “iced tea” also. Iced tea, though, could mean either sweetened or unsweetened for us, so to clarify we just shorten the “sweetened iced tea” to “sweet tea.” I prefer it to soda as well and drink it all day. I add lemon to individual servings since some of us like it and some don’t :-)

  6. says

    Bless your heart! I’ve always fancied myself a southerner and believe I must have fanned myself on a plantation porch at some point in a prior life, surrounded by pecan trees and peaches of course!

    I love that you put a Sweet Tea recipe on your blog, and I love the quote you chose from Steel Magnolia’s. And the part about Georgia legislature’s April Fools? Too funny!

  7. says

    Very refreshing way of refreshing yourself. Love anything sweet but tea love it even more. Oh my I didn’t know about sweet tea being so important part southern lifestyle. I guess I will have to come at least for my sweet tea, to experience it the southern way.

  8. Phil says

    Just a 1/2 cup of sugar, please. That stuff is fattening, though, I’ve been drinkng it all my life. I love my sweet tea, too, but we’ve got reduce the sugar. I can, on a hot Saturday, drink a gallon or two, but I cannot imagine eating a cup or two of sugar.

  9. says

    I haven’t put that in a baby bottle or sippy cup, and I don’t drink it like water, oh wait, I’m lying. I did start to use stevia though instead of sugar and add mint in the summer. And I gave the baby unsweet, or with stevia or honey, I’m not that bad. Well I guess by today’s standards I am, you can’t give baby’s that huge list, that I threw out the window, I do everything the old fashioned way, works much better.

  10. says

    I’m with you, Lana. I was literally weaned on very strong, very sweet iced tea must have had hundreds of gallons of the stuff over the course of my life. I’ve toned down the sugar over the past couple of decades but still consider it my go-to, thirst-quenching drink of choice on hot days, which, of course, is almost every day here in FL.

  11. Jen says

    I love sweet tea! I am a Yankee, but my girl Cheri taught me how to make proper sweet tea just like yours. I am a total convert!

  12. says

    Love that story! I seriously love ice tea and always put a little bit of sugar in it. It’s so funny because in England no one drinks it. Tea is always hot. I make it myself and keep it in the fridge but ususally just in the summer months. Thanks for sharing this recipe. Do you think you could use an artificial sugar or is that like sacrilege?!

    • says

      Heather – Honestly, we use Splenda (sugar substitute) in our iced tea for everyday. The “real” sugar-sweeted tea we only serve on special occasions these days. As much sweetened tea as we drink, we’d be killing ourselves with all that sugar!

  13. Shay says

    I love sweet tea with lemon. However, hadn’t had it in awhile since I am a diabetic. I will try your recipe with Splenda.

    Love your site

  14. Kanna-Chan says

    I used to not like sweet tea because my dad,my paternal grandmother, and paternal uncle all made their tea very strong and bitter. They used only half a cup of sugar. However, I recently moved to Tennesee where my maternal family lives and my aunt always uses at least a cup and a hal of sugar and I’ve grown to enjoy it, though my brother complains that it is too sweet.

  15. Erin says

    Yummy! This recipe for sweet tea is delicions! I am one of those people that had never heard of “Sweet Tea” until I moved from the Midwest to NC about 7 years ago. And it took me about 5 more years to actually become accustomed to sweet tea and now I can’t get enough. I will be making my tea this way from now on!

  16. Angie says

    Just found your website by way of tastespotting and man am I a happy girl today! Your post put a smile on my face!

    This recipe is the same recipe I use and that my families’ used for as long as I can remember (I’m pretty sure, some of our babies have had it in a bottle, I’m just sayin), but it’s just funny to see it in a recipe format and to read the comments from people about it. Seems sweet tea has quite a ‘cult’ following by now. Raised on it, proud of it, can’t get enough of it. There’s ALWAYS a pitcher of this in our home. Love your site, can’t wait to explore some of your other southern treasures.

  17. Lauren says

    Just found your recipe and site – too cute by the way – and just had to try it! I grew up in the south and lived there all my life before beginning my current adventure in Spain. The one thing I always miss though is proper Sweet Tea. I saw your recipe – and why I’ve tried a few others in the past, yours takes the cake. Reminds me so much of home! I’m bringing a pitcher into school tomorrow to let my students try while I give them a presentation on North Carolina – they’re about to start a unit on US States. They’ve been dying to try it since I keep raving and talking about it. Just wanted to say Thanks! The recipe is sweet southern perfection!

    • says

      Aw, Lauren. Your comment just made my day! So happy you found the blog and I do hope you’ll come back again. I’d love to know what your students think about sweet tea :-)

  18. rhonda says

    Oh how i love sweet tea. i would rather have it than food lol. ill tell you a good story. I got sick and was put on a ventilator to keep me alive for 11 days for a few of the last days all i could do was point to letters the first thing i asked for was sweet tea. and they had it waiting for me when i came off the machine. crazy i know but i love it. i cant believe there is people that have never tasted it or think you can add sugar to iced tea. i did a craft show one year and there was a lady from Brooklyn who had never tried it. i went inside and fixed her some right up and she loved it. this is just like my recipe. definately the wine of the south

  19. Marie says

    I moved from the north of Europe to the south (of Europe, that is) and found a lot of crops and food that I had no idea how to use in cooking so I started looking on the internet and found Southern cooking. Apart from the seafood we have the same ingredients but the flavours of the American South suit me much better than the local cooking here. They do like iced tea here, but it has almost no flavour and they prefer herbal teas to black tea. We’ve been using your recipe since last summer and it is wonderful :) Thank you for a very inspiring blog.

  20. Yasmine says

    I am glad i finally found an iced tea recipe the way i loved it when i was in the usa.. But can you help me switch the 2 family size teabags with normal tea bags? Thank you

  21. Tony says

    Hi Lana. I lived In Augusta, GA for 4 years while in the military and let me tell you…..I LOVED IT (even more than HI). My question is: What Flavor tea bags would I use to make (extra)ordinary sweet tea? I really don’t want to use “other” flavors such as rasberry or lemon. I want traditional. Thanks. By the way, I’m thinking of opening a Southern style restaurant in Mexico with the basic fixn’s like country fried steak, biscuits n gravy, etc.

  22. jsksss says

    I really like your idea of adding the sugar to the warm tea. This seems a lot easier & quicker then making simple syrup, then letting it cool before adding to the brewed tea as I’ve seen in every iced tea recipe.

  23. Karlie says

    I’ve never actually had Sweet Tea, but I’ve been meaning to change that. What sort of tea bags do you use? Would black tea work?

    • says

      Karlie, I use two family size tea bags, typically Tetley’s brand. Other brands are Lipton and Luzianne. Any of them make a very fine iced tea. And, yes, black tea will work quite nicely.

  24. Barbara Dennis says

    Love this tea….but it isn’t only from the south. We have been making this in our family at least since Grandmother in the late 1800’s. My mother – in -law who was born in 1918 said her mother always made it and we all make it in the family. Only difference is we use 6 regular tea bags, all other measurements the same. My 2nd son likes his only brewed for 5 min. Through the years we vary our tea bag choices between time and or family members. I currently use Red Rose but for many years only used Tetley and then Lipton. It’s just a preference. Currently most of prefer it without lemon but for years we had it only with lemon and added it directly to the pitcher.

  25. Teresa says

    I had never tried sweet tea until about a month ago. It was at a hospital and it was brewed, next to brewed unsweetened tea. I figured I would try it since Im a fan of tea. The best tea I have ever had. I’ve been searching for premade sweetened tea ever since and I can’t find anything as good or as sweet as I did that day. I’m going to try this recipe this weekend and hope I get close ;0)

  26. April says

    I learned not everyone drank iced tea when I move to Arizona it was surprising we always had sweet tea at our family table…..I just make it at home now the restaurants just cant get it tasting the right way… although I’m not from the south I’m from the Midwest I can’t wait to make it like this I’ve always wanted to try true southern sweet tea

  27. says

    I add a pinch of baking soda to mine and ended up reducing the sugar. The baking soda takes the bitterness out and makes the tea much sweeter on its own. I make a gallon using only 1/2 cup sugar. It is very sweet.

  28. william from oklahoma says

    We always add a pinch of baking soda while steeping. I was told by my grandmother it takes away any bitterness from the tea. But its possible that it could just have been one of those things passed down and we continue to do because grandma did

    • Lana Stuart says

      I’ve heard that from a lot of people. I never have done it, but maybe I’ll give it a try, too!

  29. says

    Whew! What a relief to know I’ve been making Sweet Tea correctly all these years! Y’all may think that sounds strange or snarky but I’ve often wondered. I do get rave reviews over my Sweet Tea, and this is exactly how I make it after much trial & error. One minor difference: I add a couple shakes of salt to the hot water as the tea steeps. That really amps up the flavor without making anything overpowering. Even my sugar-averse Better Half loves my Sweet Tea. :-) Just for the record, I *only* use Luzianne family-sized tea bags. It’s positively the BEST. Thanks for sharing this Lana – and here’s to Sweet Tea lovers everywhere!

  30. Sue S says

    I am a northerner. And I love sweet tea! Your recipe is exactly how I make my ice tea (sweet tea). Been doing this for years. Drinking it right now! I have it all year long. Even in the dead of winter. Thanks for sharing your recipe.

  31. Caite says

    There’s plenty of sweet tea in St. Louis. Remember, a ton of Southerners flooded St. Louis for many decades for industrial jobs. Then, it’s a city in a pseudo-Southern state whose southwest edge is the foothills of the Ozarks. It was definitely the particular restaurant you were at. While many places in the lower Midwest (including many places in Missouri) don’t have sweet tea, what is really strange is iced tea in general being “out of season”. I had never heard of that.


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